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Backpacker Magazine – August 2012

The Other Way In

Hike to life-list hot spots without waiting in life-list lines. These under-the-radar trails deliver everything but the crowds.

by: Brendan Leonard

Hermit Trail (photo by Laurence Parent)
Hermit Trail (photo by Laurence Parent)
Cottonwood Lakes Trail (Chris Werner)
Cottonwood Lakes Trail (Chris Werner)
Angels Landing Trail (Scott Mansfield)
Angels Landing Trail (Scott Mansfield)
John Muir Trail (Londie G. Padelsky)
John Muir Trail (Londie G. Padelsky)
West Face Gully (Timothy Piya Trepetch)
West Face Gully (Timothy Piya Trepetch)
Rainbow Falls Trail (Kurdistan/Shutterstock)
Rainbow Falls Trail (Kurdistan/Shutterstock)
Huntington Ravine (Paul Rezendes)
Huntington Ravine (Paul Rezendes)
Mt. Katahdin (Michael Kormos)
Mt. Katahdin (Michael Kormos)

Half Dome
Yosemite National Park, CA

X    Trade route Half Dome Trail from Happy Isles
→   Sneak route John Muir Trail from Cathedral Lakes trailhead
Key stats 23 miles, 3,200 feet of gain
Off-radar cred A backpackers-only permit system for Half Dome’s Cable Route

Here’s all you need to know about the popularity of the standard route up Half Dome: In 2011, the park sold all of the permits for May and June weekends in just five minutes. Think weekdays offer a respite? Those went in 23 minutes. Do Bieber tickets even sell as fast? But happily, there’s a bureaucratic loophole just for backpackers: If you plan to make Half Dome part of an overnight hike, you can score a permit for the Cables Route when you get your wilderness permit. Take the “back way” from Tuolumne Meadows via the John Muir Trail on this 23-mile overnight shuttle hike (bonus: plenty of downhill), and end your long summit day in Yosemite Valley. You’ll have company on the two-mile spur to Half Dome itself, but you can avoid the masses by using your backcountry launching pad to get a head start (you’ll be six miles closer than dayhikers starting at Happy Isles). 

Do it From the Cathedral Lakes trailhead, hike the rocky JMT through pine forest past the jagged granite sentinel Cathedral Peak. Go over 9,680-foot Cathedral Pass at mile 3.8, then descend through tree-ringed Long Meadow and past the cabins of the Sunrise High Sierra Camp. At about nine miles, you’ll begin a series of switchbacks that drop 500 feet. After the descent, look for good camping in established sites along Sunrise Creek. Next morning, get up early for your bid on Half Dome. Cache packs at the JMT/Half Dome Trail junction and finish the two-mile, 1,800-vertical-foot climb up the Half Dome Trail to the summit. (Pack durable gloves for the cables, and don’t attempt the ascent if the rock is wet.) Photo op: Head over to the Visor, the overhanging granite perch above Half Dome’s northwest face, with the granite buttresses and waterfalls of Yosemite Valley below. From the summit, you’ll drop 4,800 feet over eight miles to the Happy Isles trailhead.

Get there Park at the overnight parking lot behind Curry Village, then catch the Tuolumne Meadows Hikers Bus at Curry Village at 8 a.m. to reach the Cathedral Lakes/JMT trailhead by 10:20 a.m.
($15/person; reservations: 209-372-4386).
Map Buy the BACKPACKER PRO MAP
Permit Required. Wilderness permits: $5 + $5/person. Reserve starting 24 weeks in advance (ask for dispersed camping along the JMT from Cathedral Lakes trailhead). Half Dome permits: $5/person, given upon request to those whose wilderness permits “reasonably include Half Dome as part of their itinerary.” Contact (209) 372-0200; nps.gov/yose




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Reader Rating: Star Star Star Star Star

READERS COMMENTS

Star
Jim Andrews
Jun 20, 2014

The Abol Trail to Katahdin's peak is closed indefinitely due to slide damage from the recent harsh winter -- http://bangordailynews.com/2014/06/05/outdoors/katahdins-abol-trail-closed-for-2014-season/?ref=search

Please don't plan to use this trail in 2014.

Star Star Star Star Star
Rick Buhite
May 15, 2014

Little known secret re" Mt Whitney permits.
(5% of the overnight permits for Mt Whitney afre held for "Date of Entry")
What this means it...
If you go to the Mt Whitney Ranger station in Lone Pine before they close the night before you intend to hike the Mt Whitney Trail, They can issue you an Overnight permit good for the next day, (Even if the available permits for the current day are all gone)
What this means is that you can start hiking at MidNight or after on that next day.

Star Star Star Star Star
Laguna Hiker
May 15, 2014

Mt. Whitney - Cottonwood Lakes: A great route! No crowds until Trail Crest, and some of the most beautiful scenery in the Sierras. It's a tough hike, though, so make sure you condition for it.

Star Star Star Star Star
Back in Colo
Jan 28, 2014

I've done the Hermit trail 3 times. Twice to the river on a day hike. It's a long day, but you earn your burger at Beaver Street Brewery (in Flagstaff). I also enjoyed the Boucher trail. If camping permits are available, you can loop Boucher to Hermit. We did this with a stay at Boucher campground, looped over to Hermit rapids via the Tanto trail and then an extra night at Hermit campground.

Star Star Star Star Star
AZ Hiker
Jan 24, 2014

Beautiful scenery minus the crowds means less chance of other hikers finding you if you need help but it can still be a safe and enjoyable hike. Why? Because you read Felix! the Sugar Glider Be Safe Hike Smart (Amazon) before you hiked off-trail. A MUST READ for hikers who love to hike where others don't! Learn essential day-hiking skills, including items to pack, how to navigate your way with and without a map or compass, and how to get rescued. Learn to stay found by using a compass and paying attention to your surroundings. A compass doesn't need a signal or batteries and works in all types of weather but you need to know how to use it and this book makes learning how to use a compass easy. Hike Smart and STAY ORIENTED. This book is a fast, easy read that will definitely make hiking off the beaten path safer and more enjoyable! Felix! the Sugar Glider Be Safe Hike Smart on Amazon.

Star Star Star Star Star
AZ Hiker
Jan 24, 2014

Beautiful scenery minus the crowds means less chance of other hikers finding you if you need help but it can still be a safe and enjoyable hike. Why? Because you read Felix! the Sugar Glider Be Safe Hike Smart (Amazon) before you hiked off-trail. A MUST READ for hikers who love to hike where others don't! Learn essential day-hiking skills, including items to pack, how to navigate your way with and without a map or compass, and how to get rescued. Learn to stay found by using a compass and paying attention to your surroundings. A compass doesn't need a signal or batteries and works in all types of weather but you need to know how to use it and this book makes learning how to use a compass easy. Hike Smart and STAY ORIENTED. This book is a fast, easy read that will definitely make hiking off the beaten path safer and more enjoyable! Felix! the Sugar Glider Be Safe Hike Smart on Amazon.

Star Star Star Star Star
sierracanon
Jan 23, 2014

Did this Whitney from the south trip in a all on-trail version several years ago. Went over Cottonwood Pass, through Rock Creek, Crabtree Meadow, and out through Whitney Portal in three days. A good alternative for those who are not comfortable with extended cross-country travel.

imjackhandy
Aug 16, 2012

If you have to take the Rainbow Falls trail take it down and not up. Not a lot of views on this trail but the falls are spectacular. I recommend the Bullhead trail up and Rainbow Falls down. It'll put you out at the same parking lot.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/imjackhandy/sets/72157609867058824/

Nick
Aug 16, 2012

I just got back from a very similar trip where we came down from tenaya lake stayed need sunrise lakes then did clouds rest then staying at the john Muir trail connection. Only had to get up at 4am the make the 2.5 miles to half dome where we beat the sunrise by half an hour and had the entire summit to ourselves for the sunrise. The weather could not have been more perfect. This is the only way to see half dome.

David Dickey
Aug 16, 2012

I did the short hike 3 times last April. The crouds don't get up early so if you start early the hike is croud free. That seems like a easier way to beat the crouds than to spend $39 and 19 miles of hiking. The main point is that it is not that crouded and the last half mile (the chained part) is crouded the same no matter which way you do the hike.

Phil R.
Aug 16, 2012

Did approximately this hike before they started requiring permits to go up the cables. If you want shorter hiking days, consider taking three nights. One additional night at Upper Cathedral Lake is worth considering. Then the second night at mentioned in the article is OK. Consider a third night camped at at Little Yosemite Valley...it is a large backpackers campground, but we enjoyed it. When hiking out the last day you can choose the John Muir Trail or the Mist Trail. The Mist Trail has some wet steps, but you pass by two amazing water falls. You can also consider taking a hike to Clouds Rest. That would add another day.

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